There has been a lot of books and articles on the First Vision. But the recent article by our own Steve Taysom, which appeared in the newest issue of Sunstone, may be the first that references Mircea Eliade, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Stephen King. Indeed, Steve’s article is a fresh perspective in a debate that grows old quickly, and he demonstrates how theory—and, more generally, tools borrowed from the interdisciplinary nature of religious studies—can give us important insights on traditional narratives. Part of Sunstone’s “Mapping Mormon Issues” series, where they sponsor a researcher to examine and explain controversial aspects in Mormon history, “Approaching the First Vision Saga” attempts to do three things: first, detail the famous accounts and circumstances surrounding Smith’s 1820 theophany; second, outline how past historians, scholars, and amateurs have approached the topic; and third, hint to what a possibly more insightful framework might be.
Crucial to the article is a correct understanding of terminology. Among other scholarly terms, readers will be introduced to the scholarly definition of “myth,” which Taysom defines as “a story that conveys important moral or symbolic truths” (12). The First Vision is thus treated as a “myth” at the heart of the Mormon tradition and, even more so, as a “saga myths” so as to “suggest that each [First Vision] account is best understood as part of a larger collective body, or saga, of similar stories” (13). Apologists often interpret the vision’s importance to mean that it is outside of scholarly criticism, while critics tend to interpret it as meaning if the First Vision can be deconstructed then the rest of the LDS structure would tumble down after it. “Myth,” then, serves as a double function: its added significance places the vision above and beyond humanistic assaults for believers, while for critics it puts the vision squarely within their cross-hairs. No wonder scholarship on the topic has been contentious and polemical.
After detailing the 8 accounts of the First Vision from Joseph Smith’s lifetime (four by JS himself, and the other four by Orson Pratt, Orson Hyde, the editor of the Pittsburg Gazette, and Alexander Neibaur), the article then turns to it’s most provocative section, titled, “What Does it Mean?” Here, Taysom elaborates on a theme he touched on earlier: that the stories are more important than the event. Moving beyond the “positivism” that he locates at the center of the apologist/critic debates—meaning, that they were focused on determining the objective reality of the actual vision—the article introduces its audience to yet another term: epoché. Also known as “bracketing,” this approach allows the scholar to “set aside one?s opinions regarding religions? distinctive truth claims in order to more fully examine the accessible dimensions of those traditions” (20). This provides an opportunity to focus more on the “meaning” than the mere “historicity” of the event: what did the re-tellings mean to both the speaker and the audiences? This line of questioning also bridges the gulf between believing and non-believing authors, for it places the question of “scientific rationality” beyond the scope of the issue. It is, then, a way to appreciate the “mythical” importance of the topic without deteriorating into the endless debate of what did or did not happen.
All in all, it’s a provocative article, and I recommend it to anyone interested not only in the First Vision, but in the debate over methodologies in Mormon studies.
If Steve’s approach demonstrates the recent developments in religious studies, another JIer, Christopher Jones, demonstrated recent developments in historical studies in his recent Journal of Mormon History article. In ?The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith?s First Vision,” Chris persuasively demonstrates how Joseph Smith’s First Vision narratives were striving to follow typical conversion narratives—especially Methodist narratives—of the day. For me, framing the different accounts of the First Vision as attempts to narrate Smith’s theophany in a way to fulfill a literary genre clears up most of the questions.
Thus, between the tools provided by both historical and religious studies methodologies, not to mention other fields, Mormon studies is poised to move beyond the mires of traditional historiographical traps. The question that remains, however, is whether Latter-day Saints not familiar with or influenced by academic approaches—including most readers of Sunstone, Taysom’s primary audience—are willing or interested to leave previous debates and traditional bifurcations behind.
Stephen C. Taysom, “Approaching the First Vision Saga,” Sunstone 163 (June 2011): 12-22.
Christopher C. Jones, ?The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith?s First Vision,? Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 88-114.